Beatrice Potter Webb on Ruling the World

Beatrice Potter Webb  (1858-1943) is best known for the work she did as a social reformer and economist with her husband Sidney Webb and for coining the term collective bargaining. Together they published the book The History of Trade Unionism and traveled England trying to break down the poor laws. In 1895 they founded the London School of Economics

Despite a working partnership with her husband Beatrice felt constraints on her writing from her husband as expressed in this quote:

“I never write, except in my diary in my own style”…”I have constrained my intellect, forced it to concentrate on one subject after another; on some of the dullest and least illuminating details of social organization . . . I vividly remember the nausea with which, day after day, I went on with this task'”

 Beatrice Potter Webb, long before her marriage where she lost “both her first name and last name”, had been involved in social reform. Like most girls of her day, she received little formal education and was self-taught. She was particularly inspired by  the works of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer and came to believe that “self-sacrifice for the good of the community is the greatest of all human characteristics,” but that charity alone would not fix poverty. Instead, she found lack of education, poor housing, minimal health care, and lack of decent wages to be the root causes. With her brother she carried out a survey in the East London slums and learned poverty at first hand.   

     The following excerpt of a lively conversation between her and her older sister Margaret, which still seems remarkably apropos,  is from her 1926 My Apprenticeship, a memoir based on her diaries.

They are discussing vigorously their readings from August Compte. In these discussions the elder one, Margaret, always takes the leading part, as she reads six hours to the younger girl’s two…[she] sums up her criticism… “all Comte’s humans are servile. The man worships the woman. Who wants to worship anyone, leave alone a woman? And the woman turns out to be no better than a domestic servant with no life of her own. Thank heavens he puts the working man in his right place; Great Hearts may be; we’ve all got to think of them in order to do them any good. But they’ve just got to obey; no more strikes; jolly good thing too!

Short pause while Beatrice, having lit her cigarette by manipulating the match-box (a trick taught her sitting out with a ballroom partner in a country-house garden in the early hours of a July morning, hands the stump to Margaret, who lights up and continues in a complacent tone.

“Rather like the notion of a committee of bankers to rule the world. The Barclays, the Buxtons, and Hoares strike me as a rather solid lot; dull but solid; just the sort father likes us to marry and one likes one’s sisters to marry.”

“But why a committee of bankers?” interposes the younger one. “Why not chairmen of railway companies, shipowners—for that matter, timber merchants? Machinery, raw materials, trade routes, what do bankers know about them? And whether you like it or not, there’s the working class who’ve got votes and mean to have more.”

Margaret with a note of good-natured contempt—“My dear child, working men just don’t count; it’s money that counts and the bankers have got it. Not brains, but money.” And with a rising crescendo of conviction—“Credit; Credit, Beatrice; it is credit that rules the world. Men and women just have to follow the bankers’ loans or clear out.”

Works by Beatrice Webb

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